Since its London premiere in 1981, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats has become the longest-running musical in the history of the British theatre, the longest-running musical on Broadway, and the longest continuously touring show in American theatre history. With the arrival of the latest tour of Cats at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts, you have to wonder if this kitty has finally run out of lives.
There’s still a lot to like about these felines. The show looks gorgeous and in certain numbers the two dozen singer/dancers bring a lot of youthful exuberance to the stage. But somewhere along the way the meow has lost its wow. What felt novel, fresh and exciting in the 1980s and ‘90s now feels familiar, old-fashioned and a little tired.
The unlikely concept marries the minor poetry of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats with Webber’s neo-symphonic music. With no real dramatic frame or dialogue, the show unfolds as a series of discreet musical scenes, each featuring one or two of Eliot’s playfully and exotically named cat characters—Grizabella, Mungojerrie, Skimbleshanks—singing and/or dancing with the large kitty chorus.
The genius of producer Cameron Macintosh was to hire London’s best director, Trevor Nunn, and Nunn’s brilliant designer, John Napier, to stage the show. Napier’s giant junkyard set offers lots of levels, nooks and interesting spaces in and on which the cats can jump, slink and paw around. And oh, those cat suits! The costumes are stunning and the facial make-up turns every character into a work of art.
But a lot of the staging feels creaky and mechanical—the cats coming down into the aisles, the Elvis-meets-Bowie rocker Rum Tum Tugger dragging a couple of reluctant women up to dance, the curiously low-tech-looking rocketship thingy taking off into cat heaven. (Ground control to Major Tom-cat?) After two decades of mega-musicals and Cirque du Soleil spectacle, Cats’ special effects don’t seem so special anymore.
The high-energy numbers are entertaining, especially in the second act: the corny faux-operetta involving Growltiger (Ryan William Bailey) and Griddlebone (Ilona Ahearn-Rubenstein) with their knockout voices, the magical Mr. Mistoffelees, and Macavity the mystery cat’s jazzy cabaret. Old Grizabella (Anastasia Lange) blows the roof off the third or fourth time she sings the show’s one gorgeous song, “Memory.” But not much of Webber’s music soars like that, and even the dancers, the show’s greatest strength, feel bound by relatively generic choreography.
Cats 2008 seems less about youthful feline vitality than about the geriatric Grizabella, Old Deuteronomy, and palsied Gus the theatre cat, with his memories of past glories and his refusal to take his final meow.